Maplewood Middle School Encourages Budding Artists with Annual 'Poetry Grammys'

The prize at the "Poetry Grammys" Credits: Paula Hilliard

MAPLEWOOD, NJ - What motivates great writers, poets and other artists to be great? Is it their natural born talent or is it someone taking the time and effort to nurture that talent and bring it to the forefront?

At Maplewood Middle School not only are the seventh grade students exposed to different types of poetry, they learn how to write each type. All of this is made possible because of The Great Poetry Project which was started in 1997 by Language Arts teacher Robert Cohen who said he "wanted to give kids the bells and whistles to make poetry more interesting.”

Cohen has been teaching Language Arts at Maplewood Middle since 1996 and along with Language Arts Teacher Eve Kingsberry run The Great Poetry Project, which culminates with “The Poetry Grammys” at the end of the school year.

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Each teacher guides their seventh grade students down the corridors of limericks, similes, metaphors and ballads just to name a few. The rhythmic flow of each style is emphasized and students even have to write a song because, as Cohen states “songs are lyric poems.”

Although this program is for the seventh grade, sixth grade students attend the Poetry Grammys so they can get an idea of what to look forward to in September when they will be the next seventh grade class to participate in the project. Eighth graders who won the Poetry Grammys in the seventh grade are not only on the panel to judge the seventh graders work and pick the winners, they also get to perform in the Grammys.

The Great Poetry Project, Cohen says, “Is the culmination of the fourth marking period poetry unit” which consists of two parts, one is the writing of poems and songs, which takes about two months. Each student submits 10 – 12 pieces and then compiles them in a book with a theme. Some students work in teams, others by themselves. The best ones are submitted by the teachers to the Grammys. Along with their own submissions, the students have to submit one famous poem.

The second part of the project is they have to record themselves reading their work with musical backgrounds. "The advent of computer technology has made it easier for students to record their work as opposed to when the project first started and students used cassettes,” Cohen said.

The Grammys are an all-day event that consists of 10 – 12 acts with awards given out for  Best Overall Album, Best Short and Long Poems (free verse), Best Short and Long Poems (rhyming), Best song or rap, Most Artistic, Best Performer, Best Dramatic Reading of a Famous Poem, Best Horror Poem and Best Concrete Poem.  After the Grammys there is an after party that the students look forward to.

Zaire Hancock, a seventh grade student of Cohen’s said “It’s the best project so far because it’s interesting and I have learned complex vocabulary because of this project.”

Xavier Parks, another student in Cohen’s class and the team mate of Hancock in this project said “it encourages kids to try different forms of writing instead of like last years’ standard essay writing…. this allows kids to expand their minds.”

Kyannah Spencer, a Maplewood Middle School alumna, said “I’ve learned so much in his class and you don’t even know you’re learning and if you got in trouble you couldn’t go to the Grammys. It is like the seventh grade prom.” Students get to dress up and accept their awards on stage like at the real Grammys.                               

Cohen said students have gotten better at doing poetry as he has gotten better at teaching poetry.” When asked if The Great Poetry Project would be expanding to other schools Cohen said a unit of the project is now operating in South Orange Middle School but not the Poetry Grammys.

Because this program has become so popular with the kids Cohen said he has no choice but to keep it going because the kids expect it. If the students have anything to say about it, The Great Poetry Project and The Poetry Grammys will be around for a very long time.          

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